Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I am currently finding inspiration from artist Grayson Perry as he showcases “Covid-19 lockdown art” in his TV show “Grayson’s Art Club” on Channel 4.
Grayson makes use of our contemporary culture which he transforms into art – tapestries, lithographs, glazed vases. One of my favourite items in a Grayson Perry exhibition in London was his “career advancement vase” upon which he had painted lots of different cliché words and phrases job seeker use on CVs. These words are so evocative. They carry within them all sorts of pretensions, eagerness to impress, compulsion to present a false picture of oneself to the world.
In Grayson Perry and Wendy Jones’ book “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Girl”, co-author Wendy Jones writes: “During the interviews Grayson appeared almost physically malleable. It seemed that sometimes he would look like a First World War pilot, then a mediaeval minstrel, then a housewife suffering from ennui, then an elegant hurdler. He was always morphing – I hadn’t come across that before and I doubt I shall see it often again.”
This capacity to morph strikes a chord in me as I watch Grayson’s Art Club, listen to his raucous laugh, and observe the change in his hairstyle between scenes. I also find myself imagining him as a young girl, in one of his many other personnas, I love the idea of a “fluid and flexible ego”, something I believe Grayson Perry has; and I used this idea myself in my novel “Mystical Circles” where it is eventually understood as part of the shapeshifting gifts of a shaman. Wendy Jones’ description was fascinating to me as I have known of those who morph in this fashion and have witnessed it myself and worked it into my own fiction.
Grayson Perry suggests that we “sit lightly to our beliefs”, and “let go of a compulsion to seek meaning – we will enjoy life in this world much more.” His art bears this out; everything is referred back to his childhood teddy Alan Measles, his “guiding spirit”; everything is set against that barometer of his childlike perceptions, even to the extent of dressing as a little girl.
Grayson Perry has important things to say, strong challenges to make to me. I cannot ignore these challenges as a creative writer.
Miriam Margolyes is an actress I have watched and been captivated by for decades. She is of course the essential Dickensian character and she was perfect as a JK Rowling character too, and has been so in many other roles, both on TV and radio. I have often marvelled at her wonderful fluid and flexible voice on radio, and how incredibly versatile she is.
In her most recent appearance on our TV screens, investigating places round the world to retire to, the sheer roguish power of her personality is compelling. She slightly – and for some, greatly – outrages and offends us, yet I love her. She gives us permission to be who we are, whatever that may be, and she is a perfect example of being just exactly who she is, in total honesty and openness and freedom.
Despite the fact that she subverts the supposed ideal of feminine attractiveness in this very deluded society we live in, I think she is beautiful. She has eyes which shine with character and understanding and life. She is an intelligent and inspirational actress.
What does she have to say to us as creative writers? I read in an interview with Ernest Hemingway that as writers we have, above all, to be true to ourselves; and our most essential piece of equipment should be a “shock-proof shit-detector” (Hemingway’s words). A writing mentor once said to me, “If you’re going to be a writer you have to come clean with yourself.” For some that can be a lifetime’s journey. I do believe that as writers if we are deceiving ourselves in any way at all, it will work its way into our writing. And another quote is also compelling: “be sure that your audience will find you out.” Any writer can attest to that from reading their Amazon reviews.
But before you ever get to Amazon reviews you must deal with comments and feedback on your ms from beta readers and professional editors. Every criticism on your writing must be taken as reflecting on the work itself, and not on you as a person – something else that is very difficult for notoriously thin-skinned, sensitive writers.
What do you think? Do you relate to this at all? I’d welcome comments from fellow writers.
Among his many theories, Carl Jung includes “synchronicity”. This may be defined as “the meaningful patterning of two or more psycho-physical events not otherwise causally connected”. I’ve known of this theory for several years, and have seen it operating not only in my life but in the lives of others. Now I realise how it can help creative writers too.Let me give you a few examples of synchronicity in my own experience.
Honesty and truthfulness – these are the outstanding virtues of a great artist. And as a creative writer I have in recent times found inspiration from two contemporary artists, Grayson Perry and Tracy Emin.
At a recent Writers Workshop which I attended in London, one of the delegates asked this question of all of us who sat at my table: “Is there anybody here who wants to become rich and famous?”
A silence followed, of about three seconds in duration, when it seemed that no writer present dared to admit to this hubris.
Then I spoke up, “Well, from the age of seven, I have wanted to become a successful published author and live by my writing.”
Nine pairs of eyes swivelled in my direction. Surely, by now, life had taught me otherwise? For what does it actually mean to “live by” your writing? It means a significant amount of reliable money, which flows persistently into the writer’s bank account over the course of many years.
And there is of course a universe of difference between living for your writing, and living by your writing. It is a popularly-held belief that that the word ‘novelist’ is synonymous with ‘huge advance and three-book deal’, and ‘bestselling author living in a mansion on an island with panoramic views of the ocean from his or her writing room in the tower.”
Nevertheless, you do need money to live. And if companies are prepared to pay a liveable amount of money, year in year out, to, say junior clerks and secretaries and post-boys, why should not the world also accord that privilege to creative writers? And of course it does, to a happy few.
What are your thoughts on this? Do you buy books secondhand, are you delighted when you pick up a book for a bargain? How do you believe the world should reward those who write books?
This morning I was listening to Howard Jacobson, comic novelist and Booker Prize winner, on Desert Island Discs, and among the many things he said which touched and amused me, the most striking was this, “I have always felt myself to be on the outside of everything, looking in.” He gave this reply to the interviewer’s question, “Now you’ve won the Booker, do you feel you’ve arrived? Do you now feel you’re on the inside?”
What a wonderful response she received to this question! And this seemed to me a true writer’s response. I identified with it absolutely. This is what I have spent my life doing. When I was researching for my newly-published novel Mystical Circles, I was an observer. I was on the outside looking in. I investigated many New Age spiritual groups and lifestyles and philosophies, and I always saw myself as being on the outside looking in – just as Juliet does in my novel. How anxious Juliet is not to get involved, not to be drawn in, to keep her objectivity as a journalist. It almost seems a personal threat to her to get involved. Yet as more than one character says to her, “You have to come alongside us to truly understand.”
My character the Rev. Theo sees this clearly. “I’m all about people on spiritual journeys,” he says. “I’ll go anywhere, come in on anything.” It is no contradiction to him, a young clergyman, to enter a New Age spiritual group and to come alongside the members of the community and to live as one of them.
So you, my readers, will probably have spotted the apparent contradiction here. Do I believe in being an outsider looking in? Or do I believe in getting involved, coming alongside? The truth lies in paradox. And this is the paradox Howard Jacobson embodies. Of course he is on the inside! Of course he has arrived! And yet – he has the soul of a writer. And so he feels always on the outside looking in.
Do you identify with Howard Jacobson at all when he describes himself feeling like this, despite being successful in the eyes of the world?